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By Allen Austin-Bishop
London-based jazz and pop singer Allen Austin-Bishop’s recently released album, Sorry Grateful, contains two songs by Stephen Sondheim: the title track and “Send in the Clowns.” He’s also released his interpretation of the Sondheim song “Wait,” from the musical Sweeney Todd, as a single. With that in mind, we asked Austin-Bishop to share some of his thoughts about Sondheim, among the greatest talents of the musical theater in the latter half of the 20th century, who died in November at the age of 91.
Why Sondheim? Two words – torch songs. No matter how melodic and lovely the song, the circumstances around the song in the musical from which they derive are dark and sometimes sinister. That’s one part of the genius of his music, his irony, and it’s also what makes his songs so appealing to cover. A love song is a love song, even the dark and sinister ones, from “Losing My Mind” to “Sorry Grateful,” with their perfect, concise day-in-the-life-of storytelling.
“Sorry Grateful” (from Company) opens with the line, “You’re always sorry, you’re always grateful,” and ends with the complexity that every relationship known to humankind has suffered — “You’ll always be, what you always were, which has nothing to do with, all to do with … her.” With “Losing My Mind” (from Follies), Sondheim takes us from sunrise to sunset: “The sun comes up I think about you”; “I dim the lights and think about you.” His storytelling is masterful, in melody and in lyrics, up to the final note.
One of Sondheim’s greatest songs, “Send in the Clowns” (from A Little Night Music), is the lament of former lovers, detailing their regrets and a desire for another chance. Sondheim wanted Glynis Johns (a non-singer) to take the leading role in the show, and in doing so, he — and Ms. Johns — created a timeless masterpiece. When the Queen of Jazz, the late Sarah Vaughan, took the song and slooowwwed it down it became something else entirely — it was one of the most requested songs at her gigs. All of Sondheim’s songs are complex stories that are delivered in a simple, digestible manner, but you can’t just belt-them-out. You need to know how to tell a story musically — and that’s where Ms. Vaughan delivers. She reduces the tempo to a molasses-like crawl, while keeping the listener engaged. Like Sondheim, she had plenty of complex stuff going on in there. And while Ms. Johns showed us her skills as an actress singing the song, Ms. Vaughan was all about musicianship.
Other notable jazz artists have recorded Sondheim songs. For example, Nancy Wilson tackled “Anyone Can Whistle” — no easy task following Lee Remick’s recording on the original Broadway cast album from the show of the same name. And Peabo Bryson’s reading of Sweeney Todd’s “Pretty Women” is sensational. And Jamie Cullum’s “Not While I’m Around” is one of my favourites. Many other Sondheim songs have been covered by jazz artists, but there’s still a rich selection that’s ripe for interpretation.
My special connection with Sondheim? Sweeney Todd was the first musical I had ever seen — it was the first live performance I had ever seen. Up to that point, I had only seen movie musicals of the MGM type. As the curtain went down and the lights went up at the end of the devilishly clever “Have a Little Priest,” I turned to my friend with wild excitement, asking when the next version of the musical would be ready to see, and if we could come back into the city to see it. He looked at me and laughed, dutifully informing me that it was only intermission, and that the second part of the show would start in 20 minutes. It was as if Christmas had arrived early! Recounting that story reminds me of the final lyric from the song “Wait,” also from Sweeney Todd: “All good things come to those who … wait.”